adults in the classroom · writing workshop

Maximizing the Adult Resources in Our Classrooms

Over the summer, a few of us at TWT all received questions about how to manage extra adults in the classroom. Today and tomorrow, Deb and I have begun our own little mini-series addressing this issue. Tomorrow, Deb will share important ways to make the classroom a place for everyone, emphasizing communication and management strategies. Extra adults are a mixed blessing. Sometimes they jump right in and become an integral part of a classroom with minimal training or directions. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen extra adults who need as much or more attention than the children to whom they’re assigned. Mostly, they fall somewhere in between these two extremes. When I work in classrooms around our districts, I usually see extra adults in the classroom doing one of two things:

  1. Sitting and listening to the lesson in much the same way as the students
  2. Sitting side by side with a student giving step by step instructions and directions on the writing–doing way more teaching to the writing as opposed to teaching the writer

So what to do? How can we maximize the amazing resource of extra adults in the classroom? I find that dealing with a belief set is a key strategy for dealing with anyone, regardless of the situation. When people understand why we are asking them to do something, they are much more likely to engage in learning and to invest in new practices and changes.

  • Teach the adults in your classroom about the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development, and reference this concept a lot

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The premise of the ZPD is that all of us learn best when we have tasks that are just a little bit beyond our independent level. If tasks are much harder than we can possibly do on our own, then we are much less likely to make growth. Running is an excellent analogy for many people. If I’m out of shape, and you ask me to train to run a mile with a plan that involves a couple weeks of short jogs, I’m likely to believe it’s possible. However, if the end task is a marathon, even with the same training plan, I’m probably going to give up because it’s way too far away for me to believe I can ever achieve it. Also, when adults understand and appreciate the importance of the ZPD, they will understand better how to differentiate on their own and be more willing to let go of what they think students on their caseload should be doing and more focused on what those students could be doing, a really important distinction.

  • Once they are on board with the belief in ZPD, they will embrace differentiation. Have tools for differentiation readily available for all learners, adults included, to access and use. Here are a few to introduce and emphasize all the time:

A series of charts: I have designed sets for the different genres of writing that follow the progression of the Common Core State Standards. These are easier to create than you’d think because it just involves sitting with the standards and designing anchor charts for the two grade levels below the one you’re teaching.  It will help both the extra adults and the struggling students to see the learning progression and work toward mastery of skills within their own ZPDs.

Checklists: The checklists created by Teachers College and published by Heinemann Press within the Units of Study and Writing Pathways are excellent. Cut them out and make goal cards or white out the grade levels. Regardless of how you present them, make sure students have skills that are within their reach.

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Mentor text sets of different reading levels: I can teach leads for opinion writing from NY Times Op Ed pieces, but I can also teach leads for opinion writing from One Word From Sophia or The Day the Crayons Quit. I can teach using conversation in narrative writing with Henry and Mudge or with The Brothers Karamazov. Creating mentor text collections around a single teaching point with a variety of lexile levels is time well spent!

Create other jobs for adults in your classroom with tools in place to help them do them. Some specific ones that are fairly simple to set up include:

Conferring: Investing time in teaching other adults who work in your room is time well spent! Teach them the format of a conference–consider even giving them cards, forms, or templates to fill out in order to help them stay true to a compliment and a single teaching point. When I worked in classrooms as a special education teacher, I actually used mailing labels so that I could hand them to the regular education teacher and s/he could stick them right into the records s/he kept.

Status of the class: There are many ways to take a status of the class, but it basically involves asking students what they are working on. If you set up a form for this and teach all adults in your classroom how to fill it out, this is time that’s better spent teaching students. 

Engagement inventories: One of the most important sources of information about students in your classroom involves what they do–what they really do–during writing workshop. Again, if you develop an engagement inventory with the other adults who work with you and you explain the type of information that is helpful to know about work habits, having other adults in the room take 15 minute engagement inventories every now and them will give you important information about how much time students are really spending writing as opposed to staring out the window, sharpening their pencils, going to the bathroom, chatting, erasing– When students write more, they become stronger writers, and engagement inventories are powerful tools and important ways to use adults in the classroom. 

Here is one you are welcome to use:

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Having extra adults in the room has pros and cons. On the one hand, teachers can’t always get to all learners, and extra adults can make that happen. However, extra adults can also lead to increased dependence. Sometimes extra adults remind me of swimming bubbles or floaties. They are great if we want to turn our backs for a second or two, but children won’t learn to swim without them. Children are actually more and more at risk the longer they use those flotation devices, and in great danger if they fall into water without them. Our goal for our developing swimmers revolves around using less and less of a flotation device.

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A parallel goal exists for our developing writers. One of the greatest gifts we can give our young writers, regardless of their level, are tools to be independent in much the same way we teach young children to become strong swimmers who aren’t afraid to jump into the deep end. When we develop that mindset in all classroom learners, adults and children alike, we empower everyone to learn at high levels.

15 thoughts on “Maximizing the Adult Resources in Our Classrooms

  1. I found it helped to invest the time in helping other adults learn how to confer. This made it possible to ensuring they were teaching the writer, not the writing. Also, if that same adult was pushing in to work with a few kids, then they wouldn’t sit beside one student and hand-hold, which is counter productive.


  2. Thanks so much for blogging about this topic! I love the floaty analogy. I also like the idea of a teaching a bit about the research behind why we do what we do. I think another hurdle can be that our teaching style and philosophy may differ from that of another teacher they’ve worked with. Do you think sharing the floaty analogy with a para is beneficial?


    1. I’d absolutely share the analogy! Again, I think that the more people understand the WHY behind what we do, the more invested in the work they’ll be. I’d like to believe that everyone wants to create independent writers/students–we don’t want to just provide crutches/floaties to get students through. I think the analogy is really motivating!


  3. I love the running and floatie analogies! Having extra adults in the classroom is potentially an amazing resource, but as the classroom teacher, I know that I have not always structured things or planned so that this resource is best utilized. Your post is a great reminder that these adults often work in different rooms and that each room has different expectations. It’s important to communicate, clarify and work together as partners to empower students. Thanks so much for this post and for the great, practical ideas.


  4. Very interesting and helpful post about a topic that can be very sensitive. As a former ESL teacher, I am curious about how this is playing out with an ENL teacher in the room. I would suspect that many of the same issues come up. The issue for ENL teachers is that they are trying to adapt to the mainstream teacher’s lessons, while being in the very difficult position of working with students whose language skills may or may not be adequate for the task of the day.


  5. I love the analogies in your post about running and floats. I have had the same experiences where I have had adults either doing too little or too much in a classroom. It’s so difficult to find that happy medium. I’m excited to read the rest of this series and love the concrete ideas and strategies. The timing of this is perfect for me. I’m a special education teacher and have seen the whole focus of our profession move towards empowering vs. enabling our students. Finding strengths and taking students where they are and moving them as far as they can. This is such an important topic. Thank you!


  6. As a special educator who is sometimes the extra person and the person who helps get paraprofessionals in with certain kids this is an important issue. I get the idea of ZPD and I also get my Ss needs. I am a float arounder at times and I help check with anyone who requests assistance as well as my student. I try to teach my Ss to ask for help but that doesn’t always happen. When I float the S or Ss are more likely to get a little struggle time before requesting or me noticing they may need help. This gets trickier when you have a paraprofessional in the room (our state does not require a degree but only a HS Diploma and passing a test. Paras feel out of their element sometimes so I really try to get my GenEd teachers to help give them a focus. Such as “in Sally’s last paper she had a hard time with sentence variety or missing punctuation can you help her with that by…” The big thing is communication if you feel the paraprofessional is limiting the S’s growth then talk to whomever is in charge of them. I cannot be everywhere which is why I have paras but I need to know what is or isn’t working. I also gave help by giving them more techniques and tools to be there to help.


      1. Angela and Melanie,
        It seems we have to determine the mindset the para is bringing to the classrooms before we can design our training. I often find para’s can feel between the classroom teacher and the special ed. teacher. This makes our communication with both the para and the special education teacher all that more important.


  7. Like you pointed out, the “other adults” in my room have either been really helpful and truly a second teacher, or have been just as much work to manage as the students. I’ve had a few in between. It is worth taking the time to show them up front exactly what you hope they can do to help. In every class that is different. I think TA’s, Spec Ed teachers, etc, want to help. They don’t all think of their job as just one giant coffee break. But the amount of help they are welcome to offer is different in every class they go in to. We can’t expect they will automatically know what we want. I really like the idea of teaching them to confer with students. I love that you wrote your notes on labels so you could hand then off at the end of the class!


  8. Melanie,
    Your post is full of great doable work and raises awareness about an important issue. It was a good one for me to read as I think about my role as an extra adult in writing workshop classrooms at my school.


  9. Writing workshop and the UofS are brand new for my district this year. A huge thanks to all the contributors to this blog, as I have already found it to be very helpful. I plan to ask the teachers to follow this site!
    I love the writing engagement inventory! Having worked with associates in the past, I feel that teachers, including myself, often unknowingly put them in situations where they don’t know how to be of any assistance, so they just do the work for the students. As I coach the teachers, I can extend my coaching to the associates too. This inventory will be a great tool!


  10. “…empower everyone to learn at high levels”…💟. Awesome post idea since this is usually an issue! As a classroom teacher I strive for any adults in the room to really get behind my workshop philosophies. Your ideas for the appropriate levels of support are so helpful! I’m going to try the writing engagement inventory. Thanks for the inspiration!


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